Is the Taiwan Strait Heading Toward Another Crisis?
Mounting mistrust between China and the United States over the past year or two has raised the specter of resurgent tensions about the status of Taiwan, a recurring flash point in the Asia Pacific. Ever since the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan in 1949, Beijing has regarded eventual reunification with the island as a sacred national cause. While the United States (like many countries) has no formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, the U.S. government maintains robust informal ties with the island. Washington also periodically provides Taipei with defensive military equipment and advocates that the issue of Taiwan’s relations with mainland China should be settled in a peaceful, noncoercive manner.
Beijing views Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen with mistrust because the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) she belongs to has historically been sympathetic to the cause of outright Taiwanese independence. The relationship between mainland China and Taiwan has been quite strained since she took office in May 2016. Since then, Beijing, Taipei, and Washington all have taken actions that other parties have perceived as changing the uneasy status quo in the Taiwan Strait. While there are few reasons to expect an imminent crisis, the leaders of all three sides should keep an eye on worrying trends that could be signs of rougher waters ahead.
A CHANGING STATUS QUO
Taiwan’s leaders have taken a number of steps that China has found disconcerting. First and foremost, Tsai has not endorsed the 1992 Consensus as her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT did, a choice that constitutes a major departure from the status quo in Beijing’s eyes. Simply put, the 1992 Consensus refers to an understanding reached by representatives from the two sides, who agreed that there is one China but that they can have different interpretations of what that China is. Although Tsai did acknowledge the “historical fact” of these 1992 talks, voiced respect for the “existing Republic of China constitutional order,” and vowed to “cherish” the results of “over twenty years of negotiations and interactions across the Strait,” her statements have not been sufficient to fully reassure mainland China.
Secondly, observers in Beijing see some of Tsai’s internal measures as manifestations of her purported (albeit less overt) stance in favor of Taiwanese independence or incremental progress toward Taiwanese independence, in contrast to former DPP leader Chen Shui-bian’s more radical pro-independence approach. In particular, mainland China has been highly alarmed by what it sees as a trend toward cultural Taiwanese independence and efforts to cut cultural and historical bonds across the strait, as embodied in measures such as the revision of Taiwanese textbooks to downplay elements of Chinese history. Furthermore, Tsai has not reined in other senior leaders in the DPP or pro-independence forces when they have made more radical statements. For example, Premier William Lai has claimed multiple times in the last year that he is a “Taiwan independence worker.” Although Tsai might have privately admonished Lai to be more low-key about cross-strait relations, many in mainland China find it very telling that such a high-ranking official in the Tsai government would dare to make such explosive remarks.